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The best rock band in the world

The Drive-By Truckers is the best rock 'n' roll band in America.

I'm going to repeat that for those who are reading this in the a.m. and haven't had that second cup of coffee.

The Drive-By Truckers is the best rock 'n' roll band in America.

History, of course, will prove me right, but until then allow me to make my argument.

Reason No. 1 why the Drive-By Truckers is America's flagship rock band: Live shows matter.

That should be a given, yet I find myself getting fidgety at rock shows these days. About an hour into a show, I start shifting my weight from foot to foot in anticipation of being free from noise and the crowd.

Not so with the Truckers. I caught their gig at the McDonald Theater in Eugene last week and had a grand ol' time.

The Truckers hail from Alabama and have made their homes in Athens, Ga., so they get by on a shot of Southern charm and a Mississippi barge of Southern substance.

The Truckers rely on a three-guitar attack that can melt your face on a song like "Shut Up and Get on the Plane" or sway you on "My Sweet Annette."

They were in fine shape at the McDonald, partly because, I'm fairly sure, they were sober for the bulk of the show. And that's saying something.

I've seen the Truckers multiple times over the years, and from an eye-witness account, the quality of their playing depends on how much Jack Daniels and cheap beer they consume per minute on stage.

That's not to say they've ever put on a bad show when they've been sloshed. I saw a gig a few years back at the Pageant in St. Louis where singer Patterson Hood's eyes were nearly crossed after polishing off a fifth of Jack midset. The dude was literally slurring lyrics as he was opening beers between solos.

Yet, it was a great show because they kept the energy high throughout, even if a few chords slipped here and there and maybe, just maybe, a lyric was dropped, or entire verses skipped.

The McDonald saw the Truckers at their sober best. I believe it had something to do with it being an all-ages show. Several people brought their children to the venue and sat them right up on stage.

Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley seemed a bit surprised when they took the stage and met the eyes of fourth-graders prior to kicking into "Carl Perkins' Cadillac."

The Truckers are the darlings of pretentious rock critics worldwide. These are the types who believe rock shouldn't be too fun, otherwise it ain't good.

Word didn't trickle down to the Truckers. In their heart of hearts, Hood and Cooley wish they were arena rockers, a la Van Halen. Cooley spent portions of the evening strutting to the front stage during extended solos. Hood often tried to outdo his buddy by dropping his knees during leads and at one point did the Chuck Berry duck walk from left stage to right. All the while, they were laughing their asses off at each other.

In an era of spacey guitars accompanied by ironic disco bleeps and blips and knob fiddling, the Truckers lean on the power of beat-up Fenders.

Reason No. 2: Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics.

The Truckers don't so much write song lyrics as short stories set to riffs.

Most rockers rely on abstractions or ironic musings, but the Truckers build scenes and populate their songs with fleshed-out characters.

Consider "Used to be a Cop" about a lonely dude who lost the only two things he cared about in life: his police job and his family. In the space of four minutes we feel like we know this guy and can relate to his desperation. Hood sings: "Used to have a wife but she told me I was crazy/ Said she couldn't stand the way I fidget all the time/ Sometimes late at night I circle round the house /I look through the windows and I dream that she's still mine."

You feel the guy's anguish, but also get the sense that he's kinda scary, wound tight. You wonder about his mind-set and can understand why his wife left, probably for good reasons.

When I taught English, I would scream at my students that to sell characters, you need to pack as many concrete details as possible in a limited space. If I taught short fiction these days, I'd most likely assign a Truckers song or two to teach focus and not wasting words.

The bad news for you, dear reader, is the Truckers' West Coast swing is over. The good news is they sometimes head back this way twice a year, so I'll keep you posted.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.